Canadian Trench Newspapers 1915-1919
The Canadian Expeditionary Force was an almost entirely civilian army, made up of men and women who left their jobs, families and lives to fight in Europe. Though life on the front was radically different from anything they had known before, elements of civilian life remained. Entertainments were hosted behind the lines and people made an effort to maintain a veneer of the lives they had left behind. One of these civilian elements was the trench newspaper.
Trench newspapers were produced by nearly every country involved in the First World War. The most famous English language trench paper was the Wipers Times, begun in 1916 by the Sherwood Foresters. In the Canadian context, the first papers were evidenced as early as 1915.
Printed either very close to the front or sometimes in England if money was available, these papers bound together communities of people who had been pulled out of their daily reality to face life on the front; the bombs, mud, rats, corpses and the cheapness of human life. Unlike the propaganda laced newspapers available from the home front, written by journalists who may never have been a front line, trench newspapers were written by the people who read them, and used humour and pathos to explore and ultimately accept the conditions of their lives.
They aped the conventions of civilian newspapers, with Art Nouveau decorations, “agony” columns and joke advertisements, and used a satirical tone to describe daily life on the front. Nothing was safe from lampooning; articles skewered their commanding officers, their medical officers, war time profiteers and other elements of home front society. They mocked civilian attitudes about the “glory of war”, pointing out that it was a dirty, depressing and senseless business.
Though very few remain, trench newspapers offer a worm’s eye view of the common soldier and his preoccupations. The rum ration, daily monotony and sense of camaraderie, not only with their fellow soldiers but with the enemy facing them, shine through in these communications from the distant front line.